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John M. Chivington
Born (1821-01-27)January 27, 1821
Died October 4, 1894(1894-10-04) (aged 73)
Place of birth Lebanon, Ohio
Place of death Denver, Colorado
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch United States Volunteers
Colorado Militia
Years of service 1861 - 1864
Rank Union army col rank insignia.jpg Colonel
Commands held Colorado 1st Colorado Infantry
Colorado 1st Colorado Cavalry
Colorado 3rd Colorado Cavalry

American Civil War

Indian Wars

Other work Methodist preacher

John Milton Chivington (January 27, 1821 – October 4, 1894) was a Methodist pastor who served as colonel in the United States Volunteers during the Colorado War and the New Mexico Campaigns of the American Civil War. In 1862 he was celebrated as a hero following the Battle of Glorieta Pass against a Confederate supply train.

Chivington gained infamy[1] for leading a 700-man force of Colorado Territory militia during the massacre at Sand Creek in November 1864. An estimated 70–163 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho – about two-thirds of whom were women, children, and infants – were killed and mutilated by his troops. Chivington and his men took scalps and other body parts as battle trophies, including human fetuses and male and female genitalia.[2]

The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War conducted an investigation of the massacre, but no charges were brought against Chivington or other participants. The closest thing to a punishment Chivington suffered was the effective end of his political aspirations.

Later he became the first Grand Master of Masons of Colorado.[3]

Early life

Chivington was born in Lebanon, Ohio, the son of Isaac Chivington, who had fought under General William Henry Harrison against members of Tecumseh's Confederacy at the Battle of the Thames, he was born with color blindness and had trouble seeing shades of gray.[4][5] Drawn to Methodism, Chivington became a minister. Following ordination in 1844, his first appointment was to Payson Circuit in the Illinois Conference. On the journey from Ohio to Illinois Chivington contracted smallpox.[6] He served the Illinois conference for ten years. In 1853, he worked in a Methodist missionary expedition to the Wyandot people in Kansas, a part of the Kansas–Nebraska Annual Conference. His outspoken views in favor of abolitionism put him in danger, and upon the advice of "Congressman Craig and other friends" Chivington was persuaded to leave the Kansas Territory for the Nebraska Territory.[7]

As a result, the Methodist Church transferred Chivington to a parish in Omaha, Nebraska. This appointment would ultimately disagree[Clarification needed] with Chivington, and he would serve it for one year. Concerning Chivington's pastoral abilities, historian James Haynes said: "Mr. Chivington was not as steady in his demeanor as becomes a man called of God to the work of the ministry, giving his ministerial friends regret and even trouble in their efforts to sustain his reputation."[8] On May 8, 1860, Chivington moved with his family to the Colorado Territory, settling in Denver. He was selected as the Presiding Elder (P.E.) of the new Rocky Mountain District and served for two years (1860–62). Controversy would begin to mar Chivington's appointment, who stopped performing his function as P.E.[Clarification needed] Chivington was not reappointed at the 1862 conference; rather, his name was recorded as "located". According to early Methodist polity, describing a minister as located means that the minister has effectively been retired. Historian of Methodism Isaac Beardsley, a personal friend of Chivington, suggested that Chivington was "thrown out" due to his involvement with the armed forces, an association that would lead to Chivington's name to infamy.[6] Chivington's status as being "located" did not remove him completely from Methodist politics. His name appears as a member of the executive board of Colorado Seminary, the historic precursor of University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. His name also appears in the incorporation document issued by the Council and House of Representatives of Colorado Territory, which was approved by then governor John Evans.[6]

Civil War

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When the Civil War broke out, Colorado Territory governor William Gilpin offered him a commission as a chaplain, but Chivington refused it, saying he wanted to fight. He was commissioned a major in the 1st Colorado Volunteers under Colonel John P. Slough.

During Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley's offensive in the East Arizona and New Mexico Territories, Chivington led a 418-man detachment to Apache Canyon. On March 26, 1862, they surprised about 300 Confederate Texans under Major Charles L. Pyron. The startled Texans were routed with 4 killed, 20 wounded and 75 captured, while Chivington's men lost 5 killed and 14 wounded. This small victory raised morale in Slough's army. On March 28, Slough sent Chivington and his men on a circling movement, with orders to hit Sibley in the flank once Slough's main force had engaged his front at Glorieta Pass. Chivington got into position above the Pass, but waited in vain for either Slough or Sibley to arrive. While they were waiting, scouts reported that Sibley's entire supply train was nearby at Johnson's Ranch.

Chivington's command descended the slope and crept up on the supply train. They waited for an hour in concealment, then attacked, driving off or capturing the small Confederate guard detail without any casualties. Chivington ordered the supply wagons burned, and the horses and mules slaughtered. Meanwhile, the Battle of Glorieta Pass was raging at Pigeon's Ranch. Chivington returned to Slough's main force to find it rapidly falling back. The Confederates had won the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Thanks to Chivington and his forces, however, they had no supplies to sustain their advance, and were forced to retreat. Chivington had completely reversed the result of the battle. Sibley's men reluctantly retreated back to Texas, never again to threaten New Mexico.

Chivington earned high praise for his decisive stroke at Johnson's Ranch, even though his discovery of the Confederate supply train was accidental. Critics have suggested that had Chivington returned quickly to reinforce Slough's army when he heard gunfire, his 400 extra men might have allowed the Union to win the battle. Chivington was unusual in becoming a (minor) military hero of the Civil War for an incident in which there were no casualties.

He was appointed colonel of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Regiment of Cavalry in April 1862. The darker side of Chivington was revealed in the complaints of a captured Confederate chaplain, who wrote that Chivington had threatened to kill the prisoners whom he took at Johnson's Ranch. In November 1862, Chivington was appointed brigadier general of volunteers, but the appointment was withdrawn in February 1863.

Sand Creek

"Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians... Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice." - Col. John Chivington, Sand Creek massacre, 11-29-1864.[9]

A delegation of Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho Chiefs in Denver, Colorado on September 28, 1864

Black Kettle, chief of a group of around 800 mostly Southern Cheyenne, reported to Fort Lyon to surrender and establish peace for his band. After having done so, he and his band, along with some Arapaho under Chief Niwot, or Left Hand, set up camp at nearby Sand Creek, less than 40 miles north, having been assured that by doing so his people would be considered friendly by the government. The Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, who had aggressively led battles against the whites, were not part of this encampment. Assured by the U.S. government's promises of peace, Black Kettle sent most of his warriors to hunt, leaving only 60 men in the village, most of them too old or too young to hunt. A U.S. flag was flown over Black Kettle's lodge, since he had been told "as long as he flew the American flag, he and his people would be safe from U.S. soldiers".[10]

The governor of Colorado had received permission to raise a force to go against the Cheyenne, who had been attacking emigrant settlers. The Third Colorado Cavalry were essentially militia, volunteers who signed up for 100 days. They were put under Chivington's command and he felt pressure to use them before their terms expired at the end of 1864.

After Black Kettle and his band resettled, the commanding officer changed at Fort Lyon to one who was an ally of Chivington. In November, setting out from Fort Lyon, Colonel Chivington and his 800 troops of the First Colorado Cavalry, Third Colorado Cavalry and a company of First New Mexico Volunteers marched nearly to the reservation. On the night of November 28, after camping, soldiers and militia drank heavily and celebrated the anticipated fight.[10] On the morning of November 29, 1864, Chivington ordered his troops to attack. One officer, Captain Silas Soule, believing the Indians to be peaceful, refused to follow Chivington's order and told his men to hold fire. Other soldiers in Chivington's force, however, immediately attacked the village. Ignoring the U.S. flag, and a white flag they raised shortly after the soldiers began firing, Chivington's soldiers massacred the majority of the mostly unarmed Cheyenne. The attack became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.

Edmond Guerrier provided testimony to Congressional investigators at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1865 concerning the Sand Creek Massacre.

The U.S. forces lost 15 killed and more than 50 wounded,[11] mostly due to friendly fire (likely caused by their heavy drinking).[10] Between 150 and 200 Indians were estimated dead, nearly all women and children. (Chivington testified before a Congressional committee that his forces had killed 500–600 Indians and that few of them were women or children. Others testified against him.[12]) A prominent mixed-race Cheyenne witness named Edmond Guerrier, said that about 53 men and 110 women and children were killed.[13]

With Chivington's declaring his forces had won a battle against hostile Cheyenne, the action was initially celebrated as a victory. Some soldiers displayed Indian body parts as trophies in Denver saloons. However, the testimony of Soule and his men resulted in a U.S. Congressional investigation into the incident, which concluded that Chivington had acted wrongly.

Soule and some of the men whom he commanded testified against Chivington at his U.S. Army court martial. Chivington denounced Soule as a liar. Soule was later murdered by a soldier who had been under Chivington's command at Sand Creek. Some believed Chivington may have been involved.[citation needed]

Chivington was condemned for his part in the massacre, but he had already resigned from the Army. The general post-Civil War amnesty meant that criminal charges could not be filed against him. An Army judge publicly stated that the Sand Creek massacre was "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation." Public outrage at the brutality of the massacre, particularly considering the mutilation of corpses, was intense. It was believed to have contributed to public pressure to change Indian policy. The U.S. Congress later rejected the idea of a general war against the Indians of the Midwest.

The panel of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War declared:[14]

As to Colonel Chivington, your committee can hardly find fitting terms to describe his conduct. Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity; holding the important position of commander of a military district, and therefore having the honor of the government to that extent in his keeping, he deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the verist [sic] savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty. Having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, he took advantage of their in-apprehension and defenceless [sic] condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man. Whatever influence this may have had upon Colonel Chivington, the truth is that he surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities.

Because of Chivington's position as a lay preacher, in 1996 the General conference of the United Methodist Church expressed regret for the Sand Creek massacre. It issued an apology to the Southern Cheyenne for the "actions of a prominent Methodist".[15]

Later life

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Chivington resigned from the service in February, 1865. In 1865 his son, Thomas, drowned and Chivington returned to Nebraska to administer the estate, and became an unsuccessful freight hauler. He seduced and then married his daughter-in-law, Sarah. She divorced him for non-support, obtaining a decree in October, 1871.[16][17] Public outrage forced him to withdraw from politics and kept him out of Colorado's campaign for statehood. The editor of the Omaha Daily Herald tagged Chivington a "rotten, clerical hypocrite."[18] In July 1868 Chivington went to Washington, D.C. in pursuit of a $37,000 claim for Indian depredations. He returned to Omaha, but journeyed to Troy, New York during 1869 to stay "with [Sarah's] relatives from who he borrowed money & did not return it. The spring of '70 we returned to Washington & he spent his time trying to get money without labor. ...

"The early spring of '71 he skipped as I heard afterward to Canada ... Left me without means of support. I had no desire to live with a criminal."[19] After living briefly in California, Chivington returned to Ohio to farm. Later he became editor of a local newspaper. In 1883 he campaigned for a seat in the Ohio legislature, but when his opponents drew attention to the Sand Creek Massacre, he withdrew from the election race.

He returned to Denver where he worked as a deputy sheriff until shortly before his death from cancer in 1894. His funeral took place at the city's Trinity United Methodist Church before his remains were interred at Fairmount Cemetery. To the end of his life, Chivington maintained that Sand Creek had been a successful operation. He argued that his expedition was a response to raids on white people. He ignored his betrayal of official agreements for protection of Black Kettle's friendly band. In addition, he overlooked the contribution of the massacre to the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux bands strengthening their alliances and increasing raids on white settlers. Until he died, he always claimed to have been justified in ordering the attack, stating whenever anyone asked how he felt about his actions "I stand by Sand Creek."


In 1887, the unincorporated settlement of Chivington, Colorado was established and named after John Chivington. The railroad town on the Missouri Pacific Railroad line was fairly close to the site of the massacre. In the 1920s and 1930s it was largely depopulated during the Dust Bowl, although some buildings still remain.

In 2005, the City Council of Longmont, Colorado agreed to change the name of Chivington Drive in the town following a two-decade campaign. Protesters had objected to Chivington being honored for the Sand Creek Massacre. The street was renamed Sunrise Drive.[20]

In popular culture

  • In George Sherman's 1951 Western Tomahawk, set several years after the Sand Creek massacre, Army Lt. Tob Dancy brags to Julie Madden, whose wagon his patrol is escorting, about having ridden with Chivington years before. The movie's main character, frontiersman Jim Bridger, later tells Julie that his wife had been chief Black Kettle's daughter and that the teenage Cheyenne girl accompanying him, Monahseetah, is her sister and the only survivor of a massacre perpetrated by Chivington and his men. Bridger suspects Dancy to be his wife's murderer and pursues him after Dancy escapes from a battle with the Sioux he had provoked against orders. When confronted, Dancy confirms Bridger's suspicion by claiming to have acted on orders. While Bridger is still beating him up, Dancy is shot by a young Sioux whose friend Dancy had killed (thus initiating the conflict) early in the story.
  • The episode "Handful of Fire" (December 5, 1961) of NBC's Laramie western series is loosely based on historical events. A Colonel John Barrington, played by George Macready, and presumably modeled on John Chivington, escapes while facing a court martial at Fort Laramie for his role in the Wounded Knee Massacre in South Dakota in 1890. The Laramie episode reveals that series character Slim Sherman (John Smith) had been present at Wounded Knee and hence testified against Barrington. Then Barrington's daughter, Madge, played by Karen Sharpe, takes Slim hostage. She has papers which she contends justify her father's harsh policies against the Indians. Slim escapes but is trapped by the Sioux and must negotiate with the Indians to save the party from massacre.[21]
  • Soldier Blue is a 1970 American Revisionist Western movie directed by Ralph Nelson and inspired by events of the 1864 Sand Creek massacre.
  • James A. Michener loosely based his character Frank Skimmerhorn in the novel Centennial on Chivington. In the 1978 miniseries based on Michener's novel, Frank Skimmerhorn was portrayed by Richard Crenna.
  • In The Listening Sky, Dorothy Garlock portrayed Chivington as the father of Jane Love. The book provides background detail on Chivington.
  • In the TNT mini-series, Into the West, Chivington was portrayed by Tom Berenger.
  • The American television series Playhouse 90 broadcast "Massacre at Sand Creek" on December 27, 1956. It recounted the massacre and the court-martial of Chivington, but changed the names of those involved. Chivington became John Templeton, played by Everett Sloane.[22]
  • Peter La Farge's song "The Crimson Parson" is about the massacre at Sand Creek.
  • Fabrizio De Andrè's song "Fiume Send Creek" is about the massacre at Sand Creek.


  1. Cummins, Joseph (2009-12-01). The World's Bloodiest History: Massacre, Genocide, and The Scars They Left on Civilization. Fair Winds. p. 99. ISBN 9781592334025. Retrieved 20 July 2012. 
  2. United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, 1865 (testimonies and report)
  3. Colorado Freemasons Website.
  4. Becher, Ronald (1999), Massacre Along the Medicine Road: A Social History of the Indian War of 1864 in Nebraska Territory, Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press, p. 408, ISBN 978-0-87004-387-1,, retrieved May 12, 2011. 
  5. Holter, Don H. (1968), Fire on the Prairie: Methodism in the History of Kansas
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Beardsley,Isaac Haight (1898). Echoes from peak and Plain or Tales of Life, War, Travel, and Colorado Methodism. New York: Eaton and Maine.
  7. Morton, Julius Sterling (1906). Illustrated history of Nebraska: a history of Nebraska from the earliest explorations of the trans-Mississippi region, with steel engravings, photogravures, copper plates, maps, and tables, Volume 2 (Lincoln, NE: Jacob North and Company), p. 196.
  8. Haynes, James (1895). History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Omaha and suburbs. (Omaha, NE: Omaha Printing Company). p. 44
  9. PBS, "Who is the Savage?", 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Brown 1970.
  11. Michno 2003, p. 159.
  12. "Testimony of Colonel J.M. Chivington, April 26, 1865" to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, New Perspectives on the West: Documents on the Sand Creek Massacre. PBS.
  13. "George Bent", People, Sand Creek Massacre National Historical Site, National Park Service. "On April 30, 1913, about 53 men were killed and 110 women and children killed, 163 in all killed. Lots of men, women and children were wounded."
  14. "United States Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, 1865 (testimonies and report)". University of Michigan Digital Library Production Service.;idno=ABY3709.0003.001;rgn=full%20text;view=toc;cc=moa. Retrieved 2008-03-19. 
  15. "Sand Creek Massacre research center supported"
  16. "His Long Life Ended". October 5, 1894. 
  17. Chivington, John Milton, Isabella widow. "Pension File 41647". 
  18. "Error: no |title= specified when using {{Cite web}}". April 5, 1867. 
  19. Chivington, Mrs. Sarah (February 4, 1895). "Letter to Pension Examimer Sherman Williams". 
  20. Hughes, Trevor (December 29, 2004), "Council: So long Chivington", Longmont Times-Call, retrieved April 17, 2011
  21. "Laramie: "Handful of Fire", December 5, 1961". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved September 22, 2012. 
  22. "Massacre at Sand Creek (1956)", Playhouse 90, IMDB, retrieved April 17, 2011


  • United States Congress. (1867). Condition of the Indian Tribes. Report of the Joint Special Committee Appointed Under Joint Resolution of March 3, 1865, with an Appendix. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  • United States Senate. (1865). "Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians". Report of the Joint Committee on The Conduct of the War. (3 vols.) Senate Report No. 142, 38th Congress, Second Session. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. pp. I–VI, 3–108
  • Brown, Dee. (1970). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Owl Books. ISBN 978-0-8050-6669-2.
  • Frazer, Donald S. (1995). Blood and Treasure: The Confederate Empire in the Southwest. Texas A & M University Press. ISBN 978-0-89096-639-6.
  • Michno, Gregory F. (2003). Encyclopedia of Indian Wars: Western Battles and Skirmishes 1850-1890. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-87842-468-9.
  • West Film Project and WETA. (2001). "John M. Chivington (1821-1894)", New Perspectives on the West: Documents on the Sand Creek Massacre. PBS.

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